January 28, 2009
Obama Envoy Embarks on Mideast ‘Listening Tour’
A rush of speculation is circulating about what answers George Mitchell, President Obama’s newly named special envoy, may bring to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
It’s natural to wonder: Mitchell, 75, a former governor and U.S. senator from Maine who became majority leader, has a long career paved with high-profile problem-solving bids — some successful, others not. He helped broker the successful accords in Northern Ireland; his 2001 report on Israel and the Palestinians, while accepted as a basis for further negotiations by both sides, instead disappeared into the welter of other proposals.
At this stage, however, more than the answers Mitchell arrived at in the past, the questions he asks during his tour of the region this week could provide a better idea of where the new U.S. administration is heading.
Mitchell’s itinerary, as well as Obama’s comments to an Arab TV network, suggest that the new president is testing the waters of advancing a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, as opposed to the discrete Israeli-Palestinian agreement approach of his predecessors.
Obama made clear that Mitchell’s past was less important than his new status as his proxy when he met Monday — hours before Mitchell left for the region — with the new envoy and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Now, understand that Sen. Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton,” Obama said. “So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us. And I’m hopeful that during this initial trip, one of the earliest initiatives that we have taken diplomatically, that not only is he able to communicate effectively how urgent we consider the issue, but that we’re also going to be able to listen and to learn and to find out what various players in the region are thinking.”
Mitchell, in other words, will be taking his cues from his bosses — and right now, that means he’s on a “listening tour” of the kind made famous during Clinton’s own first 2000 run for a New York Senate seat.
Obama emphasized that approach in his first TV interview as president with the Al Arabiya network.
“What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved,” Obama said. “So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.”
Hawks and doves in the pro-Israel community have read into the Mitchell selection the wishes and fears that have characterized their approaches in the U.S. Jewish community.
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, have fretted about Mitchell’s “evenhandedness” in the 2001 report, which faulted the Palestinian Authority for hardly attempting to rein in terrorists and Israel for not freezing settlements.
In his report, the ZOA said, Mitchell “promotes the false anti-Israel belief that Jews living in communities in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] is the biggest obstacle to peace — not Arab terrorism or Arab incitement.”
On the other side, dovish groups emphasized Mitchell’s credentials in brokering a Northern Ireland peace. The statement from the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, like those of J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, cited his work in that endeavor.
“His success as special envoy to Northern Ireland, resulting in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, gives us great hope that he will be able to facilitate a peaceful resolution for Israel and the Palestinians,” the Religious Action Center said.
Several lobbyists associated with centrist pro-Israel groups were sanguine about the pick, saying that Mitchell’s past did not raise concerns.
“He’s a senior guy who had proven success on Northern Ireland,” one pro-Israel lobbyist said. “He demonstrated fairness and some creativity in the Mitchell Report” on the Second Intifada issued in 2001. “He showed pretty serious concern for Israeli security requirements and made that a big part of his plan. He’s not pro-Israel, but he’s not hostile either.”
The key to understanding the Mitchell pick, the lobbyist said, was in seeing him as a good soldier for Obama.
So far, Obama’s agenda has been less than clear. Except for committing to a more intensive involvement in the region, Obama and his aides have made clear that they are not ready to break new ground in the region. His U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, might have been echoing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she was asked after her Senate confirmation about immediate plans.
“We will work diplomatically and through other means to try to support efforts to ensure that the cease-fire is lasting,” she said about the relative calm in Gaza this week, “and in that context for border crossings to open and be available for humanitarian, as well as day-to-day economic development imperatives.”
That echoed the Bush administration approach: End the rocket attacks, get the aid flowing and leave talk about comprehensive peace for later.
What changes may yet come were suggested in Mitchell’s itinerary: In addition to Israel and the West Bank, he also planned visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Those nations, especially Saudi Arabia, hope Obama will pay close attention to the comprehensive 2002 Arab League proposal that posits a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace in exchange for Israel’s return to the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments. Not on Mitchell’s agenda, however, is any meeting with Hamas or its main regional proxy, Syria.
In his Al Arabiya interview, Obama emphasized slotting Israeli-Palestinian peace into his outreach to Arabs and Muslims. He suggested the 2002 Arab League proposal would be one way in.
“I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Obama said the tensions were “interrelated.”
“If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world — that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest — then I think that we can make significant progress,” the president said.
Obama declined to offer a timeline for a Palestinian state, and he stressed that Israel is and would remain a “strong ally” of the United States.